On the morning of September 14, 1862, the congregation of the small Dunker Church just outside Antietam Maryland heard the cannons in the distance. Seven miles away a battle was underway at South Mountain as Union and Confederate forces vied for supremacy.
A couple of days later on the morning of the 16th, the Confederate forces were at the church digging in and preparing for the battle that was coming the next day. The church would be one of the main focal points of the Battle of Antietam. The Union forces pushed hard against the Confederate position that made up their left flank.
After the battle was over the church stood standing with hundreds of bullets stuck in its walls. It served as an aid station for Confederate wounded and served as a meeting place for the two sides to exchange wounded. In 1864 the church was repaired and services were resumed.
Eventually, the congregation built a new church in Sharpsburg. Now abandoned, the structure became a target for souvenir hunters. A strong storm in 1928 finished what they started. The church collapsed altogether.
In the 1930’s the owner built a house and gas station / souvenir shop on the foundation. In 1951 the Washington County Historical Society purchased the building. They cleared the newer structures and turned the foundation over to the National Park Service. In 1962 on the 100th anniversary of the battle the church was rebuilt using as much as the original material as possible. There it stands today. A place of peace and serenity serving as a counterweight to the tragedy that surrounds it.
The Tet Offensive was a true turning point in the Vietnam War. From a military perspective, the offensive was of limited effectiveness. The US and allied military were able to limit any gains made by the enemy. Politically the effect was devastating. Widespread guerrilla attacks in areas well behind the lines, within pacified areas. Those tied in with a strong and well-organized push by the regular North Vietnamese Army. It seemed to finally cause a light to go on in the heads of the politicians in charge. We would no longer escalate. The main goal from this point on would be to get the United States out of the war.
On the civil front, President Johnson started trying to negotiate peace without preconditions and eventually led to his decision to not run for re-election. When Nixon took over he started the policy of “Vietnamization” an effort to try to train the South Vietnamese to fight the war for themselves. The American people were tired of war, not just the radicalized sections of the population, but everyone.
Militarily we stopped escalating and started focusing on getting more troops home. Vietnamization was to be the method to allow the South to take a more active role in the fighting while allowing America to draw down troops. The goal was to have the US provide ground and air support while having the South take the bulk of the fighting. After a bit, the program was deemed a success and the US left their active role in Vietnam. Not too long after, the South was removed from the map by the Communist North and the Vietnam War was officially over.
In August 1961 East German forces started work on a barbed wire and concrete barrier separating East and West Berlin. It was built to keep Western “Fascists” from polluting the hearts and minds of East Berlin. It was also built to stop the massive influx of refugees moving from east to west. Eventually, the barbwire became a wall that prevented anyone from crossing. Except at the predetermined checkpoints, which rarely allowed anyone to pass. And so the Cold War had a physical symbol that embodied the separation of east and west.
It would not stand forever.
In 1989 tensions between the US and Soviets were starting to thaw as the buzzwords of Glasnost and Perestroika started charting a new path between the superpowers. On November 9th of that year, the spokesman for East Berlin’s Communist Party let it be known that at midnight that day German citizens would be allowed to cross into West Berlin. The intention was to slowly work towards a reintegration of the two societies. The problem was that once a trickle starts, it easily can become a flood.
By the time midnight came around Berliners from both sides lined up at the gates, beer and champagne flowing freely. Once the checkpoints were open people from both sides crossed the checkpoints and as the party started to reach epic proportions people started to pick pieces off the wall. Before long the small hammers and picks of the partakers became cranes and bulldozers and before long the Wall was down. Pieces of it were sold as souvenirs, big chunks sent to museums all over the world. Including the piece above. As it was being built it was a symbol of oppression. When it came down it became the ultimate expression of freedom.
In 1777 after capturing an entire British army at Saratoga, NY the Americans were finally able to convince the rest of the world that they had a chance of winning. Up until that point France had been willing to provide a trickle of support to the Americans, unofficially of course., but they sought to avoid a war with the British. After Saratoga, however, they felt that they were ready to join the fight.
At first, their main support was money and supplies. With the American economy failing and the Congress inept both of these contributions were desperately needed. What was need more, however, was the French navy for the Americans would never be able to match the British on the oceans themselves. After several false starts and aborted expeditions, France provided ships and men to the Revolution culminating in the Siege of Yorktown and an American victory in the war.
The detail of their support is a fascinating story itself, and one that deserves more than just a few hundred words here. The plaque in the photo is located in the siege works of Yorktown and serves as a reminder that whatever we have today, we owe to the Frenchmen that gave their lives for our cause. Over 2,000 French sailors and soldiers paid the ultimate price for our freedom while fighting in direct support of America. Counting all French casualties during the period of an alliance, that number soars to almost fifteen thousand. This fantastic website details those losses, French Sacrifice.
How did repay them?
We refused to pay back much of the money they loaned us. Instead, Congress claimed that it was a gift and not a loan. (Thank Arthur Lee for that.)
We refused to help support their own revolution. A revolution that was caused in part due to the financial impact of loaning us the money they did.
From 1798 to 1800 we actually fought our “allies” in an undeclared Quasi-War on the ocean.
Now of course none of those things as clear-cut as they sound, but those will be stories for another time.
The above map is a section of a map of Pearl Harbor that one of the Japanese pilots carried. If you look close it shows where the ships were expected to be. Also the designated targets for each Japanese squadron. It is an interesting look at such a seminal historic event. Albeit through a lens different from what we normally see.
Pearl Harbor will always have a special place in our national psyche. The general public had no idea that relations with Japan had degraded so far. Most eyes were focused towards Europe and the rise of Germany. The government, however, knew that Japan was possibly an issue.
Jumping on the bandwagon that we “knew” Pearl Harbor was going to be attacked is sort of silly and actually immaterial. Once Japan invaded China the US took a course of action that made war almost unavoidable. On June 24th, 1941 President Roosevelt froze all Japanese assets in the US. With international cooperation throughout the world, Japan’s access to oil was cut off. Its current reserves were set to last only about three years, half that if it continued to expand its war machine.
The decision was made by their high command to strike out and take the resources they needed from the Dutch East Indies, but they knew the US would not sit idly by and allow it. They decided that the best course of action was to attack the US fleet in Pearl Harbor with the goal of landing such a devastating blow that the US would not have time to recover before the resources were secured, and by then the Japanese hoped to secure a peace treaty without fighting the US. They really underestimated the United States, a mistake that many enemies have made over the years.
It is September 17, 1862 and you are a member of the Union 9th Corps standing on a bridge over Antietam Creek in Maryland. A general engagement has been going on down the line as Confederate and Union forces have been duking it out. You and your fellow soldiers find yourself on the far left of the Union line and in a position to roll up the Confederate flank. That is what your commander, General Burnside has been ordered to do.
There is just one problem.
See that ridge up there?
Now imagine that it contains over 300 Confederate soldiers, dug into rifle pits and covered by artillery.
So not only do you have to take the bridge, but create enough of a “beachhead” to allow your men to cross and THEN you still have to drive the Confederates from those heights. That does not sound like anything close to an easy task.
And it wasn’t.
The Confederates, again about 300, prevented the entire 9th Corp from crossing the bridge for three hours that day. Then, even though very outnumbered, they held their side of the bank for an additional two hours. That is five hours that the Union army basically was fought to a standstill on this part of the battlefield. In the end, over 500 Union soldiers meet their end here, many staring up at that same spot that you see in the picture.
The Union won the battle in the end and it was based on this victory that President Lincoln felt secure enough to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. More on that later…
The morning of July 3rd, 1863 at Gettysburg Pennsylvania the Union and Confederate forces were in day three of an epic battle. This was a battle for all the marbles. If the South could win they would have almost free rein in the Pennsylvania countryside. From there they could make a run at anywhere they wanted in the north, including Washington DC. A war-weary North may even consider bringing the war to an end.
General Lee decided this morning that he was going to play for the win. He ordered the men to make a strong focused attack on the Union center. That should have been the weak point. Break that line and win the war. He gave command of the attack to General Longstreet even though he opposed it. As such he delayed the attack longer than he should have. Eventually, after an artillery duel seemed to prepare the field Longstreet sent General George Pickett and his Virginians to attack.
One of the men leading the assault was General Lewis Armistead. A good man and a true soldier. He had been part of the US Army before the war and now served the South. That day he led the men from the front as the artillery and rifle fire rained down. He kept them moving forward. After what seemed like a week in Hell his men closed in on the stone wall the marked the Federal line. Waving his hat perched on his sword he lead the men over the wall. For a brief shining moment they drove the Yankees back and almost, maybe could see victory.
It was not to be the Union forces rallied and Armistead fell and with him the hopes of the Confederate victory. The spot that he fell, marked in the photo above became known as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. After that hope for victory would change to hope for survival as the long, slow death spiral of the CSA began.
Before the Civil War, it was known simply as The Sunken Road. In the idyllic farm country of Maryland, the local farmers would take this road to bypass the city of Sharpsburg. To either side lay the fields, the road cutting like a wide ditch between them.
On September 17th, 1862 its name would change forever. The Confederate army had taken positions around the city of Sharpsburg. The Union forces were determined to drive them out. Along this sunken road, Confederate General Daniel Hill placed is 2,600 man division here awaiting the Union soldiers that were sure to come.
As the battle developed Union General William French maneuvered his division, about 5,500 men towards another skirmish down the line. He soon found himself coming within contact of Hill’s men and the battle commenced. From their position in the “trench” of the road, the rebels were able to pour a murderous fire on the Union troops.
For nearly four hours the exposed Union troops were held at bay by the outnumbered Confederates. As more and more Union troops were thrown into the hornet’s nest it became a bloodbath. Finally about 1 PM the Union was able to overrun the position and pierce the center of the Confederate line. Beaten and bloody the Federal troops were not able to follow-up on their success.
In all during those four hours, almost 5,500 men were either wounded or killed outright. Bodies from both sides stacked as high as cordwood. Forevermore that sunken road that cut through the idyllic countryside would be known as Bloody Lane. The photo above shows a portion of the sunken road, quiet once again with the passing of the years.
With the war in America blossoming into a world war, the British had to come up with a new strategy. Settling for a stalemate in the north they moved the active theater south. The idea being that they could pacify the rebels and let the strong loyalist population regain control of the regions, thus re-establishing the region to the crown. In May 1780 the plan kicked off with the capture of Charleston after a siege that saw a sizable patriot force surrender. In August of that year the British and American forces meet at Camden. The British succeeded in not only winning the battle, but caused the American army to all but disintegrate. With organized resistance removed in South Carolina, the British looked to implement their plan of turning the area over to the loyalists.
Enter Patrick Ferguson and his band of loyalists. Building on the support for the crown in the region, Ferguson began a campaign of rooting out rebels and restoring the countryside to British rule. Far from just a lone detachment, Ferguson’s corps was integral to the plans of General Cornwallis. It would act as the left flank of the army. It would also be the main defense for the string of British outposts in the west. Ferguson was effective enough in his actions to allow Cornwallis to move forward with his plans of invading North Carolina, Ferguson however made one major mistake.
The Overmountain Men
Looking to extend control over the mountains into the frontier, Ferguson issued an edict that anyone who did not cooperate with the Crown would be hung. Needless to say this caused a great deal of agitation to the men on the frontier. They were called the “Overmountain” men for where they lived. After Ferguson called them out their resistance to the British began to stiffen. The Americans raised a large force of militia and struck out to take Ferguson down. Hearing that he was being shadowed by this force, Ferguson decided to take a stand on Kings Mountain and force a confrontation.
On October 7, 1780, he set up his position on the heights and awaited the rebels. What transpired was one of the largest battles of the war that contained no “regulars”. The rebels advanced from multiple directions using rocks and trees for cover. They were able to us a withering fire to great effect against the loyalists. In less than an hour the position was over run. Ferguson was dead. The British left flank becmae completely exposed.
The victory for the rebels at King’s Mountain effectively crippled the loyalist cause in the south. It also forced Cornwallis to rethink his strategy. This set the stage for patriot resurgence in the area. Suddenly the south was in play once again.
The plaque above is part of small monument outside the visitor’s center at the Cowpens National Battlefield. Look back through the site and you will see some articles about Cowpens itself and some of the actors, but this plaque is a reminder that there are always two sides that fight in a war. For the British Army serving in America during the revolution, it was not all fun and games.
At the opening of the war the British Army numbered around 45,000 men scattered across the globe. The army at the time was not supplied or staffed and in the decade since end of the French & Indian war was arguably in decline. It should also be noted that a number of the troops were stationed in Ireland that was pretty much always in an active state of rebellion. (Thanks guys!)
This was the force that would be needed to face off against approximately 3 million unruly colonists three thousand miles away from their home base. It was simply not enough. While efforts to recruit more men were put into overdrive, they needed backup. This backup would come from the German states. German mercenaries, numbering about 30,000 would be used both in the colonies. They would also be used as garrison troops in other British possessions to free up regular troops. These two forces were joined by close to 20,000 American Loyalists.
By the end of the war approximately 4,000 British and 2,000 German soldiers were killed. By comparison the American battle casualties number about 7,000.
It is easy to pick sides during a war, especially when the war is from our past. It must never be forgotten that the other side was fighting for its own reasons. Seeing that plaque is just a reminder of that.
People, Places and Things from US Military History